Alex Brandon/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the subject of news photographers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Dec. 2, 2010.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the subject of news photographers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Dec. 2, 2010. Alex Brandon/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Way back in grade school when we all were taught about the exquisite three-legged stool structure of the federal government, we learned the three branches were meant to check and balance each other.
Each branch would jealously guard its own power, defending its turf.
But what was revealed by the process of repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban against gays openly serving in uniform is that sometimes because of controversy, one branch seems reluctant to use its power and must be shoved by another to do so.
In the case of don't ask, don't tell, it was the executive branch that persuasively argued to its legislative co-equal that Congress should repeal the ban and not wait for a judicial repeal by the courts. So two branches wanted to neutralize a third.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates successfully argued that by repealing the 1993 law, Congress would give the Pentagon the time and space it needed to effectively manage the process.
If the matter were left to the courts, he argued, the Defense Department could find itself dealing with unreasonable deadlines and judicial orders. That could lead to chaotic results for the military.
Gates' argument prevailed. It helped that Gates is a highly respected Washington insider who served in Republican administrations before becoming President Obama's defense secretary.
Because of his reputation as one of the quintessential adults in American public life, he provided important political cover for Obama as well as Republican senators or less liberal Democrats inclined to vote for the repeal but afraid of a social conservative backlash.
In any event, don't ask was a powerful example of the executive branch's not checkmating Congress but encouraging it to act to keep the third on the sidelines.